All-access look at life
Former Tampa Bay area radio host Greg Smith, an advocate for the disabled who is disabled, is the subject of a warts and all PBS documentary.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 14, 2005
When I last saw Greg Smith, I was carrying him on my back.
Smith, a nationally known radio personality and speaker on disability rights, uses a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy. Weighing less than 70 pounds, he's a 40-year-old bundle of intellect and energy, tireless in his mission to explore a world where, for him, turning off a bedside lamp can take long minutes and Herculean effort.
Four years ago, Smith lived in the Tampa Bay area, broadcasting On a Roll, the nation's only live, commercially syndicated radio show for the disabled. He had come to a party for journalists of color at the African Art Museum in Tampa and found that he needed help getting to the room. So we hoisted Smith up two flights of stairs - leaving his 400-pound wheelchair on the ground floor, after several failed attempts to carry it along.
Once he arrived, I worried about him, concerned that he may have felt demeaned by being carried up the stairs like a child. But I had missed the point: Smith was angry because the museum practiced a form of discrimination he sees every day.
No ramps. No elevator. No access.
"I had to bite my tongue that day . . . (because) that's the most limiting thing I experience," Smith said last week from his home in Ocean Springs, Miss. "I can't even go into people's houses without it being a big, major ordeal. And I see houses going up around me every day with nothing but steps on them. But if I can't get into people's homes literally, maybe television can get me there virtually."
Smith's optimism springs from a documentary on his life, On a Roll, that hits PBS stations nationally Tuesday. From the day he was diagnosed with the degenerative muscular disorder at age 3 to his reinvention as a motivational speaker and life coach, Smith's journey as a self-described "wheelchair dude with attitude" is presented as a warts-and-all story of struggle and boundless optimism.
"I want people to think: "Wow. I never realized someone with a disability could be so much like me,' " Smith said. "I want them to be inspired that if somebody like me can do what I'm doing, then they can do incredible things, too. Disability is not a fate worse than death; it's just another part of diversity."
It makes a certain kind of sense that assembling a documentary on Smith's life would take a Herculean struggle of its own, requiring filmmaker Joanne Caputo to spend six years and an estimated $500,000 to complete.
"If you know how much work it would take to do these things, you probably wouldn't start them in the first place," Caputo said, laughing. She met Smith when he lived in Ohio and their children grew friendly at school; later, she recalled watching him handle a radio broadcast from his home and thinking, "It's time to start shooting this guy."
Though Caputo is diplomatic about the delays that stretched out the production time - caused mostly by the struggle to obtain financing - Smith is frank about the public's disinterest in disability issues.
"I think there is an inherent fear of disability," said Smith, who shut down On a Roll in 2003 because of a lack of sponsor support, reinventing the show as a personal motivation program dubbed The Strength Coach (airing at 11 p.m. Sundays on WTWB-AM 1570 in Lakeland). "People don't want to be reminded of their own vulnerability. But everybody's temporarily able-bodied. You don't check out with an able body."
The film Caputo created is more than a typical story of will overcoming physical adversity. Along the way, she delves into areas rarely visited by mainstream media stories on the disabled: Smith's sometimes stormy, occasionally abusive relationship with his ex-wife, Terri, whom viewers learn suffers from bipolar disorder; Smith's decision to have three children despite a disintegrating marriage; the stress that Smith's parents experienced worrying whether his children would inherit muscular dystrophy (they are currently healthy) and more.
"We're seeing him as a whole person, not just that guy in the chair," said Caputo, whose own health problems - she had breast cancer requiring a mastectomy - helped her understand how isolated and frustrated the disabled can feel. "Often, in these profiles, we don't see that dark side. But Greg also expects more from himself than anybody expects. He drives himself like a Type A personality. He could have (spent) all these decades sitting at home accepting Social Security, but he wants it all: success, fame and financial security."
Born in Mississippi in 1964, Smith was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in a segregated hospital three years later. The source of his personal drive and thirst for independence becomes obvious as viewers meet his father, Jim Smith, a driven, successful corporate executive who once was fired as a teacher for heading a black voter registration drive and insisted that his children develop self-reliance, despite any obstacles.
By age 13, Smith had to have his spine broken to keep it from harming his internal organs, and he was forced to use a wheelchair. But his growing physical problems didn't keep him from pursuing a career in broadcasting, becoming sports director for the campus radio station at Arizona State University and research director for a radio station in Phoenix.
Upset that the station wouldn't allow him to work as a salesman, he started On a Roll in 1992, spending the next 11 years building a career as a widely known advocate for the disabled. But his personal life was rockier, leading him in 1990 to marry a self-described "party girl" against his parents' wishes.
Despite their friendship, Smith and Caputo disagree most on how his ex-wife, Terri, is portrayed in the documentary. Though Smith sees his problems with her as the result of a bad marriage, Caputo sees their stormy time as the reflection of another rarely discussed trend: caretaker abuse.
"People said things they heard third-hand as fact, and there were a lot of wonderful aspects to that relationship," said Smith, who bristled at the notion that viewers might think Terri stuck with him because she was also disabled. "I think it presented only the negative about us. And I can get with any woman out there."
But Caputo said she was inspired to include more material on Smith's marriage after seeing a workshop on caretaker abuse and realizing that their relationship had classic symptoms.
"I think Greg prefers to dwell on the lighter topics, especially regarding his own life," said Caputo, who interviewed Terri on bruising subjects: her habit of slapping Smith to get his attention, the stress of caring for their children and Smith, and her attempt to set a fire inside their house while Smith was inside.
"These families are overstressed; Terri was both mother to Greg's children and his personal caretaker," Caputo said. "And I think (the violence) was the price Greg was willing to pay for a relationship."
Filming proved a tough balance for Caputo, who often had to let her friend struggle while documenting the trouble he has with issues the able-bodied take for granted.
Once, at a swanky, high-priced hotel, a personal assistant scheduled to help Smith bathe and dress himself failed to show, forcing Caputo to fill in so he could make an important public appearance. When Smith traveled to Japan to speak at a conference, she could afford to attend only by serving as his personal assistant: filling dual roles as caretaker and filmmaker that blurred the lines between objective observer and active participant.
In Washington, D.C., Smith found himself in a frustrating quandary: Local cabs lacked wheelchair access, and wheelchair-friendly taxis from Virginia were allowed only to ferry passengers in the District to the airport. So Smith had to call cabs from Virginia and tell them mid ride that he really wanted to go somewhere else.
"I can't go see the president speak about the (Americans with Disabilities Act) because I can't get a cab," he notes dejectedly at one point in the film. "That's pretty profound."
Caputo also showed Smith's surprising lack of empathy at times for those who work hard to help him, including the parents who supported him and his three children after his 1999 divorce from Terri.
"I don't want people to emphasize that I should feel overly guilty or indebted," said Smith, echoing a similar quote in the documentary. "I love my parents, and what they have provided is unbelievable. But I would have been able to handle my life if they had not stepped in."
Caputo had a different perspective: "He told me once, "I have a certain amount of energy to start out the day, and when I drop a pencil, I can spend half that energy trying to pick it up or ask someone else to do it for me,' " she said. "He's not shy about accepting help; he's done it his whole life. And he can be limited in his empathy for what someone is doing for him because he has not done it himself."
Still, Smith resists the pity-drenched images of the disabled presented in events such as Jerry Lewis' Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, images at odds with his limitless ambition and love for life. "I don't necessarily want to be on Oprah or Larry King Live," he says often. "I want to be Oprah or Larry King."
Brought to Tampa by work with the wheelchair resource Web site accesslife.com, Smith left to move in with his parents when the company downsized. Now living in Mississippi, he has developed a career as a motivational speaker (35 speeches a year) and reaches 25 stations nationwide with his new show while finishing his first book, an autobiography called On a Roll: Reflections From America's Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude.
Of course, he hopes the film On a Roll leads to new opportunities, helping sell the nation on his vision of life without limits - no matter what challenges you may face.
"I wouldn't trade my life with any athlete," Smith said. "I have three wonderful children. I have the ability to motivate and inspire people. I have a unique position to speak about it in a broadcast. I wouldn't change that for any cure. And that can be inspirational for anyone."
Eric Deggans is a Times editorial writer. He can be reached at 727 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.orgAT A GLANCE
On a Roll airs as part of PBS' Independent Lens series at 11 p.m. Tuesday on WEDU-Ch. 3.